Tuesday, July 17 , 2018, 4:47 pm | Fair 73º


Local News

5 Formidable Candidates Vying to be Santa Barbara Mayor, and That’s the Challenge

Path to victory not very clear yet as Hal Conklin, Frank Hotchkiss, Angel Martinez, Cathy Murillo and Bendy White stake claims to possible routes

The leading 2017 Santa Barbara mayoral candidates are, from left, Frank Hotchkiss, Harwood “Bendy” White, Angel Martinez, Cathy Murillo and Hal Conklin. Click to view larger
The leading 2017 Santa Barbara mayoral candidates are, from left, Frank Hotchkiss, Harwood “Bendy” White, Angel Martinez, Cathy Murillo and Hal Conklin. (Noozhawk illustration)

For the first time in decades, the contest to become the mayor of Santa Barbara appears to be competitive, with no single candidate having a clear path to the city’s top elected position.

Five mayoral candidates with a degree of heft are in the race. Three incumbent City Council members will challenge a former council member and mayor, as well as a retired CEO of a well-known shoe company.

With a little more than three months to go before the Nov. 7 election, it’s too early to identify all the issues that will define the campaign. Nevertheless, the candidates most certainly will be duking it out over several high-profile, hot-button ones: high-density housing, the challenges surrounding State Street downtown, the future of vacation rentals and a sales-tax hike on the ballot.

It’s also the first mayoral election since the city adopted district elections in 2015, as well as the first in years without an incumbent running.

Among the few thousand political insiders who enjoy poring over every detail of campaign contributions, party politics and endorsements, there’s also significant intrigue.

Will three Democrats in the race — Hal Conklin, Cathy Murillo and Harwood “Bendy” White — split votes and allow the most high-profile Republican, Frank Hotchkiss, to win the mayor’s seat?

That’s the question fueling and shaping the race as we head into August.

“Democrats need to learn to count,” said Daraka Larimore Hall, longtime chairman of the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party.

“I am not sweating bullets, but it’s never helpful to have a bunch of Democrats running for the same thing.”

The Democratic Party has already endorsed Murillo, currently serving her second term on the council, over White, a fellow two-term councilman, and Conklin, a former mayor and councilman.

Although the election is nonpartisan, it is very partisan when it comes to recruitment of field volunteers and campaign workers, campaign contributions and political messaging — all details that make a difference in close races.

Adding to the rising interest is the presence of Angel Martinez, the former CEO of Goleta-based Deckers Brands, who hopes to bring to voters what his supporters believe the city has been lacking: an outsider’s perspective with successful business acumen.

“There’s usually someone who is an obvious front-runner, but here there are multiple paths,” said Brian Robinson, a principal at Terrain Consulting who is running Martinez’s campaign. “And since this is the first real district election, there’s no turnout model for this.”

No candidate has a clear, unobstructed route to the mayor’s office, but what follows is an outline of how the five candidates are positioning themselves to make a competitive run for the job. The candidates are listed alphabetically.

Hal Conklin

Conklin is hoping to return to City Hall after a nearly 25-year break. He was elected to the City Council in 1977, served four terms as a council member, and then was elected mayor. He was forced to step down, however, after local voters approved a term-limits initiative that barred municipal officeholders from serving five consecutive terms.

He hopes to strike a nerve with old-time Santa Barbarans, those who remember when he was in office and believe that the city back then was better than the Santa Barbara of today. Conklin has served on dozens of nonprofit organization boards over the the years, and is looking to lock up support from the arts and philanthropic communities.

Conklin said the City Council makes too many top-down decisions and that he’d like bring the community back into the process.

“The mayor’s job is not to be the center of the council, but to be the chief facilitator of conversations to bring people together,” said Conklin, who spent more than 15 years as a public relations director for Southern California Edison.

Conklin, however, will have to convince voters that he is in touch with a new generation of voters, while trying to distinguish himself from the like-minded Murillo and White and many environmental and social issues. Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams, a Democratic Party favorite, recently broke ranks and surprisingly endorsed Conklin over Murillo.

Frank Hotchkiss

A Realtor and former actor and journalist, Hotchkiss talks a straight-forward game and doesn’t apologize for it. At a recent City Council meeting, he said, “I have a great appreciation for petroleum products.”

During his two terms on the council, he has advocated for a stronger crackdown on aggressive vagrants on State Street while trumpeting a pro-business attitude. He led the charge to bring more cruise ships to Santa Barbara.

There is no other candidate like him in the race, and Hotchkiss is hoping to sew up Santa Barbara’s conservative vote. He is counting on competition among the Democrats to dilute their votes, allowing him to slide into first place.

Hotchkiss’ opponents will attempt to portray him as anti-environment and a voice for only a narrow portion of Santa Barbara, but such criticisms have not worked in the past.

Angel Martinez

Martinez, whose first name is pronounced “ahn-hel,” is the biggest unknown in the race. Many locals are familiar with Deckers, with its gleaming corporate offices in Goleta, its largely millenial workforce, and popular footwear brands that include UGG, Hoka and Teva.

Whether that will carry any weight with voters is a mystery. Martinez will attempt to use his business experience to boost his credibility on issues such as rescuing retail on State Street. He recently had a “meet and greet” at Impact Hub on State Street.

“If there is a malaise and dissatisfaction, you have an opportunity to elect someone like Angel,” Robinson said. “You have a political outsider who is not affiliated with a party.”

But Martinez will have to overcome perceptions that he is just a retired CEO looking to get into politics to have something to do. A downtown resident, he previously lived in Hope Ranch and has a home in Ventura County. Formerly a registered Democrat, he is now on file as a no-party preference voter, formerly known as a decline-to-state.

Martinez and Hotchkiss will compete for the business-minded, fiscal conservative votes, and voters will have to decide who has better ideas about how to revive retail on State Street.

The key to Martinez’s success will likely rest on his ability to turn out new voters, or ones who are willing to give a political newbie a chance.

Cathy Murillo

Murillo has tapped into Santa Barbara’s progressive liberal left. She has worked to be a voice for renters, an advocate for greater library funding, and a booster of more high-density and affordable housing.

She is a former broadcast journalist who has been widely embraced by the Democratic Party. She is known for her hard work, down-to-earth likability and aggressive campaigning, but conservatives believe she can be overly emotional and partisan. She is also an outspoken feminist and pro-choice advocate.

“My goal is to talk to as many people as I can, Democrats or people otherwise,” Murillo said. “I sincerely enjoy meeting new people and I have been meeting a lot of them in the past few months.”

About 50 percent of voter turnout is typically from Democrats, while Republicans usually make up about 34 percent of the turnout in Santa Barbara. In theory, Murillo has the numbers on her side, but there are two other well-regarded Democrats in the race. Her campaign fight will be to keep Democrats from voting for other Democrats on the ballot.

Harwood “Bendy” White

In a different era, White might be seen as a bridge candidate, someone with appeal across parties. A lifelong Democrat, he is also a slow-growth preservationist who loves to make small talk about things like infrastructure, water and floor-to-area ratios.

A former planning commissioner, White is hoping to pull moderate Democrats who believe Murillo is too far to the left, and appeal to moderates and conservatives who believe Hotchkiss is too far to the right.

White has one significant strategic problem, though. In recent years he has drifted away from the Democratic Party’s power base, endorsing outsider Jason Dominguez in his successful campaign for the City Council, and term-limited Mayor Helene Schneider in her failed bid for Congress. Both were snubbed by the party hierarchy.

“The party has always had his back, but he never endorses our candidates,” Larimore-Hall said of White. “It was the same with Mayor Schneider. They almost never endorsed our candidates, except each other.”

Party endorsements are not just symbolic; the Democratic Party typically organizes hundreds of UC Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara City College students to walk precincts and make phone calls on behalf of its candidates, an effort that can make the difference on Election Day. To have a chance on Nov. 7, White will need to reach moderate Democrats and decline-to-state voters outside the party system.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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